So, on the morning of Thursday, April 22, I got an email from Tom Colicchio (actually guest relations at Crafted Hospitality) telling me that he had opened his first Italian restaurant – Vallata. It is a pop-up in Craft’s small private dining room (next door to Craft), where Tom would be cooking the food inspired by what he’s been cooking for his family during the pandemic. And for the first few weeks, Tom would be in the open kitchen.
I thought for about two seconds and decided that this was worth going into Manhattan for the first time since March 2020. I forwarded the email to rtb and peg and asked when rtb would be back in NYC. There were plenty of three-tops available for the next few weeks but rtb would not be fully vaccinated until the end of May. I had to wait until 12pm when the office would be open to ask how long Tom would be in the kitchen and how long the pop-up would be open. Tom – a few weeks in the kitchen. Vallata – probably would be open for a few months. I told rtb that I would be willing to go back there and eat again but I wanted to check out the place while Tom was still in the kitchen. I went back to make a reservation for two but now all that were left were a few three-tops on Friday, April 30th. I took it and asked one of my bosses, Mark, who goes out to eat all the time, if he would like to be my third, and he said, “Yes, please.” We had a reservation for 9:30pm.
My plan was to take the LIRR into Manhattan (I’m still not riding the subway) and then a bus downtown. There was a rainbow over Kew Gardens.
Because I had to deal with the LIRR schedule, I was in Manhattan much earlier than I needed to be. I decided to walk downtown to take up some time. At Madison Square Park there was a beautiful burst of tulips and I decided with all the color filling the night, between the rainbow and the tulips, that the universe was telling me that this was the night to be back in Manhattan.
It was still only about 9:15pm when I got to the restaurant and the hostess said that my table would be available in about 10 to 15 minutes. I assured her that was fine because I was so early and I took one of the two seats near her. There were people eating at the bar but space is limited because of C19, so I couldn’t sit at the bar. If I had wanted a drink, I could have ordered one and they would have brought it to me. One couple, also waiting, ordered a bottle of wine while they were waiting.
While I was people-watching, I noticed a security detail – men with earpieces and a pin on their lapel that I couldn’t quite make out but looked like the Capitol building. They kept walking in and out of the restaurant or stood at the front door. Who could this VIP be? Would I see him or her? Would I recognize him or her? peg and then Mark showed up and we chatted while waiting for our table. Then I saw the security flanking someone, who turned out to be Chuck Schumer. He walked close enough to Mark that I was sure they would greet each other but neither said anything. I said, “Mark! Your buddy Chuck just walked out of the restaurant.” Mark had not seen him. Mark noticed Schumer’s wife Iris first, who saw him and then Schumer, standing outside, saw Mark inside, and they waved, and then Mark went outside to say hello.
The hostess came over, took our temperatures, and then told me that we would be getting a table right in front of the kitchen. I had been eyeing the four-tops next to the host station and was hoping we would not be seated there, especially since those tables had been cleared just before we were sat. The tables were in the darkest part of the restaurant, far from the kitchen, and all high-tops, which are always difficult for short me to sit at.
Instead, we were walked through the small restaurant all the way to the back and literally right in front of the open kitchen, where we could watch Tom (the only staff member not wearing a mask) and the other two cooks. There were only three cooks on the line and they were all working. Tom is a celebrity and if someone approached the kitchen to say hello or compliment him, he was polite but he was definitely working. He could have come out and walked around tables or done any of the celebrity chef stuff but instead he was a working cook and that was taking all of his attention. By the time we had finished our appetizers or had just been served our entrées, there were only four, maybe five, tables still eating and the kitchen was getting ready to close and Tom was done for the night. He put on his coat and was talking to some of the staff in front of the kitchen. He started to leave and walked past us and I yelled, “Tom!” as if he was my good friend and he turned around and I told him that Mark and I worked at Capalino, where he would be doing a webinar with our president next week. We talked for maybe a minute and he was off. Like all cooks, it was a long night and his night was over.
All the tables were closer than six feet apart but not so close that we were on top of each other. So, enough space to feel safe. And sitting so close to the kitchen, and not off to either side but in the center, we really felt like we had front-row seats in the VIP section.
So, like an online recipe, you had to read the long story before we get to the good part.
peg and I ordered drinks to start. I got The Spaghetti Western, which had the smokiness I wanted from the mezcal and sweetness from the Cointreau. On the menu it is under the category of Negronis but it is also like an elevated Margarita. We each planned to have a glass of wine with dinner and Mark was going to wait until then. They gave us our appetizers before we had been served our drinks, which I mentioned to the host, who had brought our plates. Both the waitress and host apologized and said the bar was backed up and we would get our drinks very soon. When we got our bill, they comped our drinks because they had been brought out late. Since the drinks were late, I thought I would never finish it before it was time to order the wine with the entrée but it turns out I could finish it.
I decided on two appetizers – the coppa di testa with salsa verde and the braised spring greens with artichoke “vignarola,” which we shared. I like to order more than one appetizer because they are usually small and most times better than the entrée. But when the appetizers came out, I discovered that the portions were much bigger than usual at this type of restaurant. The coppa di testa was presented like a pâté (three of them!) with bread. And the salsa verde brought a real brightness to the dish. The spring greens included asparagus, peas, and lima beans and there was a sprinkle of cheese (Parmesan?) on top. It was a perfect bite of spring. Mark also had the coppa di testa and peg had the shaved artichoke.
None of us are wine experts and we asked the waitress for recommendations of what wine we should each have with our entrées based on our preferences. She recommended the Fiano for me, since I was looking for something close to a Chardonnay. I would not say it was like a Chardonnay – there were definitely much different notes, especially the non-oakiness. But it was dry, which is one of my biggest preferences. Each of us was happy with the wine recommendations.
The online menu had gnocchi with braised oxtail, which I had decided the night before I was going to order, but for that night’s menu it was ricotta cavatelli with braised oxtail, pine nuts, and raisins. The braised oxtail was perfect – stringy (in a good way) and tender. For me, the dish was salty and the big raisins (I actually thought they were prunes and maybe they were) added just the right amount of sweetness to offset the saltiness. peg pronounced her skirt steak perfect and Mark’s pork shank was ginormous. We each took a bite of it with the stewed tomatoes and it was delicious.
I barely had room for dessert but I was not going to say no to dessert. Mark and peg went with the olive oil cake, which I passed on because I do not like rhubarb. They said they could barely taste the rhubarb and that it was more like a strawberry shortcake. When I ordered the cannoli bombolone by just saying, “Cannoli,” the waitress explained that it is not a cannoli but a bombolone filled with cannoli cream. I said the cream was the best part of the cannoli, isn’t it? The bombolone was covered in grated chocolate and filled with the delicious cannoli cream. A grated chocolate covered doughnut filled with cannoli cream pretty much is the best description for the dessert. Exactly as you would want it to taste. I had a glass of the Moscato along with it. But I was wondering about the expensive Chianti dessert wine – what could it possibly taste like? Is it like a Port? Next time.
When the bill came, Mark paid for all of us, which was a pleasant surprise.
One of the last nice restaurants I ate in before the pandemic (October 2019), if not the last nice restaurant, was Tom’s Temple Court at the Beekman Hotel, so this seemed like the perfect way to begin my back to Manhattan journey. Such a perfect meal and I look forward to going back
By Carene Lydia Lopez